Walkability Is Just a (Good) Start

The Dequindre Cut Greenway, opened in May of 2009.

A recent report from Smart Growth America, in conjunction with The George Washington University’s Center for Real Estate & Urban Analysis, includes Detroit in its “top tier” of Development Momentum rankings, indicating that the city’s walkability is trending up rapidly. Projects such as the riverfront restoration and Dequindre Cut Greenway helped secure this ranking.

This news reflects progress in the city as its residents start to enjoy the numerous health and economic benefits of walkable neighborhoods. These benefits are well documented in scientific research, and some of the top reasons why walkability is important in an urban environment include:

1.     Ample footpaths with access to recreation and retail areas encourage walking and exercise outdoors. This is especially important in a country where close to 35% of adults are obese and 93% of the average citizen’s time is spent in closed buildings or vehicles.  

2.     Walking takes cars off the road, which decreases traffic and reduces emissions. 

3.     Strong walkability increases property values and decreases rates of foreclosure.

4.     Walkable neighborhoods see decreased rates of crime, including violent crime and murder.

5.     The quality of spaces surrounding people drastically impact their quality of life; one study suggests that having a more complex and walkable environment requires maintaining a more complex cognitive map and can help ward off Alzheimer’s Disease.  

We at Human Scale Studio have made significant efforts to increase walkability in Corktown through our work with the Corktown Economic Development Corporation. We recently won the Knight Cities Challenge award for our People First project, and we will distribute 12 grants of $5000 to selected fellows to fund transformative projects aimed at making Michigan Avenue a more complete street. (More information and applications are available here.) The benefits of walkability are wide-reaching, and the findings of Smart Growth America and GWU indicate that the city of Detroit and its activists are serious about improving walkability and seizing these benefits. 

Kids play at the Detroit Riverfront fountains. 

Kids play at the Detroit Riverfront fountains. 

Still, in designing more walkable communities, we must remember that improving walkability alone is not enough to secure a sustainable and prosperous future for a neighborhood or region. Studies have shown that HUD-assisted housing is more likely to be in walkable neighborhoods but also more likely to be in neighborhoods of “lower quality,” with higher incidence of segregation and low-quality schooling. For example, this article leads with the story of a woman who was happy to see her son walk across the street to school only to later realize that this convenience was useless because of the school’s poor quality.  

The presence of desirable facilities alone gets residents out of their houses, but walkability matters less when there aren’t desirable locations to walk to. In the development of Detroit and other cities across the country, a foundation of strong education, transportation, public services, and general financial solvency are must-haves. In the wake of this exciting news it is important to remember that walkability is just the start.

Joe Squillace is a junior at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina. He is a summer intern at the Corktown Economic Development Corporation and is interested in cities, energy, and computational sustainability.